‘Do No Harm Act' Would Forbid Religious Objection to ‘Any Healthcare’ Service

Lauretta Brown | May 23, 2016 | 3:13pm EDT
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Demonstrators react to hearing the Supreme Court's decision on the Hobby Lobby case outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. on June 30, 2014. (Associated Press)

(CNSNews.com) – Reps. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) introduced the Do No Harm Act Wednesday, which would amend the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to specify that religious exceptions should not apply to “protections against discrimination or the promotion of equal opportunity” and “access to, information about, referrals for, provision of, or coverage for, any health care item or service.”

The legislation is intended to “clarify that no one can seek religious exemption from laws guaranteeing fundamental civil and legal rights.”

The bill emphasizes that RFRA should not be interpreted to “authorize an exemption from generally applicable law that imposes the religious views, habits, or practices of one party upon another” or authorize “an exemption from generally applicable law that imposes meaningful harm, including dignitary harm, on a third party.”

Kennedy claimed in announcing the bill that “the Religious Freedom Restoration Act has become a vehicle for those seeking to impose their beliefs on others or claim that the tenants of their faith justify discrimination.”

“The Do No Harm Act will restore the balance between our right to religious freedom and our promise of equal protection under law,” he argued.

RFRA currently says that "government shall not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability" unless it is demonstrably “in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest” and is the “least restrictive means” of furthering that interest.

A prominent use of RFRA which would not hold up under the proposed legislation is the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. Supreme Court decision where the court ruled that it violates RFRA for the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) to require religious business owners to provide contraceptive and abortifacient coverage for their employees.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation pointed this out in their endorsement of the legislation.

"The Do No Harm Act would limit which laws RFRA applies to. For instance, RFRA would no longer allow believers to be exempt from the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Violence Against Women Act, or laws that require coverage for any health care item. The bill, if enacted, could undo some of the damage caused by the Hobby Lobby decision," the group said in a statement.

The bill has also received praise from Planned Parenthood, the National Abortion Federation, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and the Human Rights Campaign.

"I am delighted to offer my strong support for the Do No Harm Act," Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), co-chair of the Equality Caucus, said of the bill. "No religious tradition has as a central tenet or core belief that you should deny services to someone because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. The Do No Harm Act makes clear that religion can never be used as a legal justification for discrimination against LGBT individuals."

“Religious freedom gives us the right to our beliefs, but not to harm others,” Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said. “The Do No Harm Act would place much needed limitations on RFRA, so that it can be used as a shield for religious exercise but no longer as a sword. With the Do No Harm Act, RFRA could no longer be invoked to justify discrimination, denial of health care, or other harms. We at the ACLU are proud to stand in support of this legislation.”

Rev. Frank A. Pavone of Priests for Life told the Boston Herald that Kennedy’s bill in one way “is right.” He said, “It makes sense to say that I can exercise my religious freedom, but in doing so I cannot take away the fundamental rights of someone else.”

But he added that the bill is the wrong way to address that issue, because courts can’t be the judge of individuals’ faith.

“When it comes to the matter of religious freedom, we are going to the core of the human conscience, the human soul,” Pavone said. “How are you going to dispute that?”

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